The false prince, p.22
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       The False Prince, p.22

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 22

 

  But there was no gap. The window was shut tight. I pressed on it, but it was either locked or stuck beyond my ability to open it.

  I wondered what I should do. Tap on the window and get Roden and Tobias to let me in? They’d certainly tell Mott or Conner and I’d face a terrific punishment for that.

  As it turned out, I didn’t have that decision to make. Tobias sat up in bed and looked directly at me, then a wicked smile spread across his face. He arched his eyebrows, as if asking what I intended to do about this problem.

  I held out both hands, then pointed to the window. He shook his head slowly, then rolled over and lay back down again.

  I looked at Roden, but if he was awake I couldn’t tell. He wasn’t facing me and wasn’t moving, except for a slow rise and fall of his body. I wondered if he was a part of Tobias’s trick. Roden and I had agreed to sabotage Tobias. Maybe Roden also made an agreement with Tobias to sabotage me. If so, it would leave him free of both of us as threats. It would be a clever plan, and I almost regretted that I had not thought of it.

  I leaned my head against the stone wall of Farthenwood and balanced my feet on the narrow ledge. It wouldn’t be long before the morning servants would awaken to begin preparing the house for a daytime routine. I was running out of time.

  A few of the servants’ windows were open, but it didn’t seem like a good idea to go through any of them. Too many people, most of whom would be waking up soon. Besides, then I’d have to get all the way upstairs and past Mott or whoever stood guard outside our room at night, all without being seen.

  Conner’s window was slightly open. That would at least get me on the right floor. Then I could keep watch and hope for a sleeping servant guarding my door, or an easily distracted one. As risky as it was to use his room, it was my best choice. Maybe my only choice.

  Conner had a small balcony outside his room. The door was bolted shut to keep it from blowing open during a wind gust, but the window beside the balcony was opened enough to let a slight breeze through. The window gave easily when I pressed on it. It was much larger than the window by my bed, so there was no difficulty in sliding my body into his room.

  I stood still for a very long time to be sure of the rhythm of his sleep, the depth of his breaths and their cycle. He snored softly, which I appreciated because it gave me some cover for any sound I might make.

  His wide canopy bed was draped in so much fabric, it was difficult to see his body. The sounds of his snoring would have to be enough to assure me I was safe.

  Back in Mrs. Turbeldy’s orphanage, I’d spent more nights than days roaming through the rooms. I knew how to test for a floor’s squeak before placing my weight on it. I knew how to open a door, a closet, or a drawer so that it didn’t create a sense of movement in the room. And I knew how to stay invisible.

  At least, I knew how to do it there.

  Here, it was a little more complicated. I wasn’t familiar with the layout of Conner’s room, and there wasn’t much light to work with.

  Conner’s room was larger than our bedroom. Ridiculously large for only one man, but he was the master here, so if this was the room he wanted, it was his. On one end of the room, to my left, was his bed and several large wardrobes along the far wall for his many fine clothes. Near me was a cushioned chair where he could look out over the balcony onto the back lawn while he sipped a morning tea. To my right were rows of shelves filled with books. He had so many more in his office below that I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d actually read all these books, or were they merely for show? Probably he’d read them. Conner was a thorough man. I was briefly curious about the titles, about what books he studied. Then Conner mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep and rolled over. It was time to go.

  The door into the hallway was shut tight. One of the problems that concerned me was not knowing what I’d find on the other side. Was his room guarded or waited on by a night servant? A nobleman’s often is, but I wouldn’t know until I opened the door, and there was a stiff penalty for guessing wrong.

  Then in the moonlight, something caught my eye, hinting at a possibility I’d suspected, but not yet proved. The fringe on a hanging tapestry was pinched between walls. Conner had told us earlier that he knew all the secrets to Farthenwood. I hoped this was what he had meant. Either the interior walls were uncommonly thick or Farthenwood had secret passageways.

  I took my time crossing the floor of Conner’s bedroom. Wood floors are notorious for their creaks, and I didn’t want to cause the creak that woke him. Once I reached the wall, finding the way to open the door into the passageway was remarkably easy. Three finger holes were carved into the wall, but hidden by the border of the tapestry.

  I opened the door to the passage as slowly as possible and no wider than necessary. In a bind, I can get through small spaces. This was a very big bind and I allowed myself only a very small space to enter.

  Once inside, I saw that the passage was barely lit, with oil lamps set in sconces and spaced far enough apart that a person could make his way through. It was narrow and poorly marked for any exit points, except for a small handle on the wall that released the hidden door to open. I took a few wrong turns, entering other guest rooms that were fortunately empty.

  When I came to our room, I immediately saw why Conner had chosen to put us here. There was a small hole at the base of the wall that I’d previously mistaken for a mouse hole. It was no such thing. Conner had given us a room where, if he wanted to, he could listen to our conversations.

  Conner still used the tunnels, or one of his surrogates did. That’s why oil lamps were kept burning all the time. I would have to use great caution if I chose to return here.

  I silently pressed open the secret door, letting myself back into our room. Tobias and Roden were both asleep in their beds. I watched each of them for a while, wondering if in different circumstances any of us might have become friends. Then I shook it off. It had been a long time since I dared call anyone a friend. The concept was only theoretical to me now.

  Tobias woke up early that morning to find me sound asleep in my bed, and nobody the wiser. He stared at me openmouthed when I finally woke up, until I rolled over to fall asleep again. Tobias never asked me the story of how I got back into our room. And I never offered it.

  Errol entered my room that morning with the clothes I’d worn when Conner first brought me here.

  “Finally,” I said. “Why the delay?”

  Errol hesitated, finally deciding that instead of answering, he’d ask whether I had any reward for him.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said lightly. “But if you’re ever in the library, there’s a small bump in the pages of Conner’s family history. You might straighten it out. ”

  Errol grinned. “No offense, sir, but all three of you came in here empty-handed. It might be wise for me to ask where that coin came from. ”

  I shook my head. “The truth is, Errol, that it would not be wise at all. Thanks for returning my clothes. Now get out and leave me alone. ”

  “I can put those clothes away, sir. ”

  “So can I. Close the door behind you. ”

  When he left, I unfolded the clothes to inspect them. They’d been washed, and a rip in the side of my shirt was mended, but otherwise they seemed the same as before. These were so much more like me. I didn’t belong in the silks and fine weaves Conner costumed us in. They weren’t comfortable. I didn’t feel like a gentleman while wearing them, and certainly not like a prince. I felt like a fraud. Which in the truest definition of the word, I was.